BWW Reviews: Oregon Shakespeare Festival's ROMEO AND JULIET Brings This Classic to Life
Have you heard of this…Oregon Shakespeare Festival? If you have then you’re probably one of the roughly 125,000 that travel to Ashland during the course of the year to take part in OSF. If you haven’t then…wait, really? You haven’t? Hmm…I’m sure you have. This is awkward, let’s move on.
Some quick knowledge concerning the fest, OSF has been running since 1935 and is home to the oldest existing full-scale Elizabethan stage in the Western Hemisphere. The festival is an eight-month season of 11 plays, and doesn’t actually limit itself to only Shakespeare productions. In fact, seven of the 11 productions during the season are by classic or contemporary playwrights not Shakespeare. First play I ever saw there, years ago, was RAISIN IN THE SUN. Can’t wear white shoes now. Thanks for that, OSF.
But enough jibber-jabber, let’s talk shows. Playing right now is ROMEO AND JULIET; ANIMAL CRACKERS; MADEA/MACBETH/CINDERELLA; TROILUS AND CRESSIDA; PARTY PEOPLE; HENRY V; THE VERY MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, IOWA; AS YOU LIKE IT; and the eclectic performance interludes of the GREEN SHOW. I was able to get down to Ashland and catch ROMEO AND JULIET as well as HENRY V, hoping to keep in true form to the OSF’s middle name. So thus follows Part One of Broadway World’s two-part Oregon Shakespeare Festival review:
ROMEO AND JULIET
Treatments of Shakespeare. That’s the most interesting thing when discussing the Bard. You can draw out meaning until the end of time, you can talk about who performed it best, the exhaustive way in which these texts cover the English language, you can talk about the what for a long, long time and it’s worth it. But I think we’re all pretty familiar with ROMEO AND JULIET, so let’s look at the how.
The OSF production of ROMEO AND JULIET is set in California, when the United States was wrestling control of the California territory away from Mexico, just after Spain had released control themselves. ROMEO AND JULIET in Spanish?! Buckle up. But truthfully, you’ll be surprised at how the story places fairly seamlessly in the stead of Italy. Both the Italian and Mexican/Spanish cultures share the tradition of large, patriarchal families, as well as a heady machismo that allows for rivalry and conflict between youths (forgive my stereotyping). There is a vein of showmanship and performance that seems to run throughout the narrative quite naturally (think Mercutio and his speeches), and the Mexican/Spanish persona on the stage responds actively to that vein. Plus…romance. It just fits, is what I’m sayin’.
The Spanish California setting re-awakens some of this material by glossing it with a fresh brush. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make an old story come to life again. Crafting characters with a different sort of fire, a different voice (in language or even just dialectically), is good. It’s worthwhile and completely effective in providing a fresh angle for the audience. Wakes you up, makes you pay attention. But it is a fairly superficial change. I can only cite two instances when dropping into the Spanish language is used as an effective stylistic choice instead of being used on a throwaway phrase, and one of those successful instances is the opening chorus, so there’s still a lot of play left for opportunity.
The second target this shift seems to be aiming for is a new relationship dynamic between the native families and the insurgent ‘law men’. The Prince of Verona is replaced with an American General, and Count Paris is replaced with Officer Paris of the American army. According to the liner notes, the dynamic in Juliet’s pairing with Paris now becomes about ensuring the Capulet’s security (and possibly safety) during a chaotic and potentially violent time in California. Angering General Prince with disruption of the peace becomes more dangerous, as his very physical presence is symbolic of America’s threat to Mexico. It’s an interesting premise. Did it show up? Well…the text doesn’t really allow it to show up. For obvious reasons, the reading is just not there in the surface narrative. However, for those in the audience more intelligent than I, possessing full understanding of the Mexican-American War and its consequences, the subtext is probably clear.
My conclusion about the culture move as a whole is…it’s fun. It’s a cool way to spice things up for an audience. Does it add new readings or revelations? Not really. Which feels like a missed opportunity. It certainly doesn’t lose anything by making the shift, though, so don’t be a spoilsport. Enjoy the accents.
The second treatment aspect to discuss is the ham. And by that I mean the lively performances and not the swine. This could be a continuation of the culture shift, as Mexican/Spanish theater very regularly lends itself to animated performances, but I choose to read this as a stylistic decision on the part of the director, Laird Williamson. Everything is played up. Speech is played up, comedy is very played up. The penis jokes…so many penis jokes.
For the majority I would say it works, playing up the passions injects energy into a long play. Playing up the comedy juxtaposes the tragedy and makes the whole thing feel more like a journey. Let me give you two examples of ‘the ham’ working:
The Nurse, as a text character, can be annoying. She’s overly-cautious, really clucky, and never asserts herself outside of servitude. However, here, she is played as comic-relief, going big on her eccentricities and old age, and suddenly she feels much more functional within the dynamics of the household. She feels more human, more like a part of the family, and a quantity in the life of Juliet. It works. The second ‘ham’ bit is in the frame of Romeo’s initial love for Rosaline, which is a heavily debated matter that can be played a variety of ways, with a variety of readings. Is it honest or childish? Is it lust? How does this affect our view of Romeo when he switches so immediately to loving Juliet? In this production, Romeo’s love for Rosaline is played as comic, it is the butt of jokes made by Romeo’s friends, seemingly because they know this is just Romeo being Romeo. They know this isn’t serious, which very effectively offers us a specific reading on Romeo as a character.
There are times, though, that this energy is wearying. Towards the end of the first half I just felt bombarded with shouting, like this production was afraid to be quiet for even just a moment. It’s so full-on, all the time, that you want to stand up and say, “guys? Hey, doing a great job. Can we just time-out? For a second?”. And luckily…there’s your intermission.
The last treatment bit I’ll touch on is the dynamic between Romeo and Juliet themselves. It’s a very interesting series of choices. The first is that, in the text, Romeo gets most of the relatively bad poetry and Juliet gets all the really good stuff. Romeo’s dialogue kind of shapes up towards the end, but in the beginning it’s all really sappy and false. In this production, though, it’s played quite the opposite. Romeo is played very straight and Juliet is played as incredibly false and childish. So what with Romeo being the fickle suitor that he is (Rosaline still with fresh bruises having been cast off so suddenly) and Juliet being not quite genuine, it feels like these are two children going through the motions of love, not really meaning it until the trauma of the world turning against them marries them like atoms in a collider. After that...both of them are really lovely in all areas.
Here’s what that does to the narrative though: the satisfaction lies in the resolution of the family rivalry. The children are the act, their innocence forcing them into tragic circumstances, but the hate between the families is what feels real. You know what path Romeo and Juliet are on, and it’s so familiar that it’s able to be played as slightly comic, but Capulet and Montague are really trying to make things work for themselves and this rivalry just keeps complicating everything. So there’s your real drama, and its resolution at the end feels much more important to me than it ever did in the original text.
I hope my rambling about how this production treated Shakespeare’s most famous romance has moved you to make the trek down to Ashland and get your tickets. If it hasn't yet then let me just push you over The Edge: the production quality is world class, the acting is charismatic and explosive, and if it has inspired this much conversation in a humbug-critic such as myself then it tends to be worth seeing. Get your tickets! Oregon Shakespeare Festival!
And stick around for Part 2!
ROMEO AND JULIET plays through November 4th at the Angus Bowmer Theatre. For ticket information, click the link below:
Photo Credit to Jenny Graham
Concept and Illustrations by Owen Jones and Partners, Ltd.